By: Camille Vulcano, Associate Editor
On January 12, 2023, pop superstar Miley Cyrus released her self-love anthem “Flowers.” The smash hit skyrocketed to the top of the charts, shattering streaming records on the way. However, it was not just the song’s monumental commercial success that got fans talking. The star’s sampling of Bruno Mars’s 2013 hit “When I Was Your Man” in the song sent fans a clear message that Cyrus referred to her public and tumultuous breakup with ex-husband Liam Hemsworth. Hemsworth is rumored to have dedicated the Mars song to Cyrus in 2015. Fans circulated other theories, including widespread speculation that the filming location for the “Flowers” music video was a house Hemsworth frequently rented to carry out his alleged extra-marital affairs.
Fans waited for Hemsworth to respond to theories about Cyrus’s messages, but unsurprisingly, the actor stayed silent. Soon after the song’s release, some Twitter users falsely claimed Hemsworth was about to lose a television show contract with Netflix as a result of the negative press. One account shared “leaked documents,” purportedly from Hemsworth’s legal team, that “proved” a defamation suit was in the works. All of these suit rumors were wholly debunked, as the “leaked” documents were actually photoshopped fakes. But as defamation gossip was put to rest, the controversy got some entertainment scholars thinking: Hemsworth may not be suing Cyrus for defamation over “Flowers,” but could he?
The general elements for defamation are as follows: (1) the publication of a false statement of fact to a third party; (2) that was defamatory concerning the plaintiff; and (3) with the requisite degree of fault. Since Hemsworth is a public figure, he would have to show that Cyrus acted with actual malice, which is defined as knowledge that the defamatory statement was false or made with reckless disregard for the truth. A Plaintiff may not recover under a defamation claim when his or her reputation is affected by generalized negative press, absent specific false statements of fact. Further, a plaintiff whose injury stems from some sort of insult, even specific name-calling, generally cannot recover. Public figures, such as Hemsworth, have an expectation for media exposure that will likely involve negative reporting For these reasons, a defamation claim in response to being painted as a bad ex-husband would likely be unsuccessful.
Hemsworth lovers may lament, but the limited application of defamation stemming from a potential defendant’s song lyrics is deeply rooted in the First Amendment. Without such limited application, artists around the world would be chilled in their efforts to create raw, emotional tracks that are relatable, enjoyable, and uplifting, like Cyrus’s hit. Since artists have a right to write break-up songs, and fans will always crave them, Hemsworth’s team would be right to recognize that sometimes, rumors should remain just that.
Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Rincones, 520 S.W.3d 572, 577.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 256.
@ethanscyrus, Twitter (Feb. 28, 2023, 2:58 PM), https://twitter.com/ethanscyrus/status/ 1630673901742071811
@Pauly041, Twitter (Mar. 2, 2023, 10:14 PM), https://twitter.com/Pauly041/status/ 1631508210493411329